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Sunday, June 30, 2013

Waking from Nightmares

Not too long ago, I woke up from a terrible, terrible nightmare.

It was simply awful.  My friends were all suffering from some terrible wasting illness, and there was nothing I could do to help them.  I tried to help, but I could really only watch.

Because it was a dream, it had no shortage of strange imagery, and my afflicted friends had these runners of brown fungus coming out of their ears and nose and mouth and even their eyes.   I think by the end of the dream they looked like shaggy fungal beards that kind of moved and swayed to the sound of music.

(Like I said, dream imagery.)

I helped scrubbed them clean--the ones who would let me near them, that is--but it the fungus would just come back even worse each day.  And I sat and watched the people suffering and felt a certain survivor's guilt that I seemed to be in good health.  Eventually the people would become covered in the fungus completely.

And my heart was breaking for them.

This dream went on for what felt like weeks (in the dream).  I went to bed and woke up many times.  In fact, it was most often after I went to bed and woke up that I discovered a fresh patch of fungus on my loved ones.  I tried every anti-fungal product the store had it but there was nothing I could do.

Eventually I went to bed for what would be, within the dream, the last time.  I woke up.  I shifted in my bed.  My eyes opened to take stock of my room.  I thought of the way things just seemed to suck, and I really just didn't want to get out of bed.  Eventually I got up, feeling strangely visceral compared to the past few weeks.

I walked downstairs to get some breakfast.  Everything seemed at once saturated with color, hyper-detailed and strangely dull.  No one in my house had brown fungus though.  At first I thought the people near me were just having a good day.  But when I went outside the world seemed a little too bright, the sun shone a little too loudly, and no one out there had fungus either.  That's when it started to dawn on me that I had awoken from some terrible nightmare.  That's when I started to do "dream math" and realize that I couldn't remember how I got to several places in my dream and I didn't read a book during the entire time.

Like most powerful dreams, it stuck with me emotionally for hours, even after I realized intellectually that it wasn't real. I kept being relieved every time I saw people looking healthy.  Waking up was a slow process of being reminded that the nightmare was finally over.

I have felt this way all day today.  I kept thinking of that dream without being sure why. However, more than the dream itself, I kept feeling that I was waking up from some terrible, terrible nightmare.  Things just beyond my perception kept triggered that feeling, but I wasn't sure why.

My friend Mike made me realize why.

Mike is a short guy, legally blind, and an awesome masseuse.  He has the benefit (as do I, he added inconspicuously) of looking over a decade younger than he really is, and a crooked smile that is absolutely charming.  When supportive girlfriend introduced him as an old friend from her home town who had happened to end up in the Bay Area as well, she also revealed that her sister had a huge crush on him.  Mike entered my consciousness as "that guy your sister likes."

A few months later, Mike came out to his friends and family as gay.

I don't get to see Mike nearly as much as his awesomeness requires, but one of my defining moments with him that was a few years ago when I had hurt my back right before we were about to go to Burning Man.  I got a massage from him and I commented on how many shoes he had.

"That's a lot of shoes."

"Well, I am gay," he said.

"Yeah, but that's like fifty pairs," I said.

"I'm really gay," he said.  And I we both started laughing in that way that takes several minutes to wind down.

I grew up in a conservative suburb of Los Angeles.  I remember a young man named John.  I don't know if John was gay, but John was different, and John acted gay, and that was enough.  He was bullied....mercilessly.  I watched for five years as he took shit for being effeminate, for dressing differently.

But I think the worst of it was how they teased him.  "You are so.....so.....GAY," they said.  It was crystal clear from the way they spat it out that no further insult was required.  That was, in and of itself, the worst epithet they could ever label him with.

The Muslims of my early twenties were no better.  I remember one experience--shortly before my faith started to crumble against the higher edicts of my own values--when my friend Omar said "We absolutely should let gay people serve in the military--let's put them on the front line, preferably in high casualty situations."  Later he pointed out hadith about burning sodomites alive.

There were exactly two moments, before I finally left Islam, where I felt distinctly, unequivocally like I had taken a wrong turn and not just like my faith was a little lax.  One was reading the Quran Surah Four: An-Nisa (The Women).  If you've read it, I don't need to explain it.  If you haven't, nothing can really prepare you for just how codified misogyny is in Islam more than those 176 verses.  The second was reading the punishment for homosexuality.

After that I moved to the bay area.  "Fled" might be a more accurate term.

The Bay Area is not as wildly liberal as most people think.  The city is, of course, and the general timber is red shifted to the liberal side of things, but it's not like you have to look far to find homophobia.  Travel more than thirty minutes away from San Francisco in any direction (maybe an hour if you're going north) and you're going to find the vast majority of people think it's unusual for me to be a feminist and a guy or who haven't ever heard the concept of privilege.  And of course you can find people who think homosexuality is wrong.  It's not all under this uberprogressive bubble.  So for years after I got here it was sort of something that I didn't notice because it didn't affect me.

But about ten years ago I began to realize that there was a struggle being waged for human rights.  I had coworkers who call into work after equal marriage setbacks, unable to face the day, and they were not okay.  I had friends who would descend into a funk.  It wasn't just something other people were dealing with.

It was hurting people I loved.  In a sense it was killing them.  It was here I became an ally--in as much as I've tried to make that mean something more than wearing a big foam #1 glove

I have to be honest.  I wish I could tell you that I felt it viscerally, but no matter how much of an ally I tried to be, it was always a bit of an abstraction to me.  I always ended up pissing off people I cared deeply about because I was being over intellectual about something that was striking right at their hearts.  It was something I couldn't quite do more than be supportive about.  Except that about six years ago, for reasons I'll not get into here, I met a person I loved but couldn't marry.  We can do hand fasting and make sure there's some legal paperwork in place in the event of one of our deaths, but we can't get married.  Not legally.  Not yet.  Probably not in my lifetime.  I'm a bit ashamed to say that's really what drove it home for me.

Because let me tell you, that just fucking sucks.

Of course for Californians who support marriage equality, it's been a pretty amazing week this week.

I was talking with Supportive Girlfriend today.  I was talking about Mike and how she wanted to schedule a dual massage as one of our "date nights" in the not-to-distant future.  And it just hit me like a flash and I blurted out: "Mike can get married!"  I mean of course if you'd asked me, I would have known that, but it was that moment where I put the two connections together.

And it was like....there wasn't a moment where I started crying.  Nothing welled up.  The tears were just THERE in my eyes.  Instantly.  White hot and so very, very happy.

Mike could get married.  Mike CAN get married.

And that's when I realized why I was feeling what I was feeling all day today.  That's when I realized what it was triggering that feeling from the dream about evil death fungus. I had taken a long walk down to the store and back earlier in the day and the whole time I kept passing same sex couples holding hands. Unafraid. Unashamed. Unstigmatized. Bigotry is dying right in front of me--in the span of just my little life I've gone from "gay" being the worst insult imaginable to living in a place where bigots would be the ones who would have to worry about being attacked by a mob.  And I didn't immediately, consciously realize how that was making me feel to see all those public displays of affection, but when I thought about Mike, it all hit me at once.

How painful progress is to stand in the middle of it, but how inspiring it can be to turn back once in a while and remark on how far we've come.

I know it wasn't "all a dream."  I wish it were, but it wasn't.  I know it isn't over.

But it sort of feels exactly like waking up from a terrible, terrible nightmare.

[© 2013  All Rights Reserved.   If you enjoyed Falling from Orbit, please consider a small donation (in the tip jar on the left side of the screen) to continue to fund future offerings of fiction here at Writing About Writing.]

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Mailbox: Grammar Questions I Have No Business Answering

Is past perfect always passive?  Me vs. I?  Who vs whom? "A history" or "An history"?  

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments may end up in the mailbox.  And while I'm happy to take a crack at grammar questions, there are probably better people to ask about them.)]   

Two things before I dive into today's questions:

1- We're now running between 4 and 6 weeks out on questions for the mailbox, so pretty soon I may have to start choosing which ones to answer--or at least choosing a few not to.  So if you've ever wanted to write in, you should do so soon.  The window of guaranteed answerage is closing if I keep getting questions at the current rate.

2- I'm going to answer these questions because I promised I would answer anything that has to do with writing--and grammar does.  But you really should be hitting up grammar websites for this kind of advice, not me.  (I really like Grammar Girl because she doesn't thump one style guide like a Bible, and is comfortable with changes to the language that have happened in the last couple of decades.  Plus she has a phone app.)  However, if you have paid close attention to Writing About Writing, you know that I make more than my fair share of grammar mistakes.  I am constantly correcting mistakes after I have posted an article.  In fact, I consider it a win if I don't discover that (because of my A.D.D.) I simply trailed off and didn't even finish a

Chris asks:

Is a sentence with "had been" (like "had been eaten") always passive?  I know I'm not supposed to use passive voice, but I'm not sure how to avoid it if I need my action to be done in the past.  

My reply:

Man, Chris, you probably don't realize how complicated this question actually is.  I'm going to try not to hate you as I give you a really crashy crash course on passive voice and verb tense.  This is the supermega skim version of a grammar lesson.

Let's start here: the short answer is no.

Got it. Now run away screaming.

No?  Okay then.

Passive voice and tenses have some overlap, and your example IS passive, but it is possible to have an active construction in the past-perfect tense (the tense you used in your example).

Zombies.  They just make everything cooler.
We could argue whether they make grammar fun.
But they definitely make it better.
Today we shall test the limits.
Here's a test I teach my students to find out if a sentence is passive: if you can add the phrase "by zombies" at the end of the sentence, and it makes sense, it is passive.  ("John ate the cheese [by zombies]" makes no sense, so it is active. "My brains were eaten [by zombies]," makes total sense, so it is passive.

That's grammatical sense, not logical sense.  I know zombies aren't that into great Russian literature, but grammatically speaking, "Tolstoy was read....by zombies," is a good sentence.

And if you'll allow me to slip on my hipster glasses, I totally did this trick before Rebecca Johnson tweeted it and before it was cool.   She got hella retweets off of stealing my trick.  Hate that girl. (Not really.)

Now let's get into why...and I'm going to go over this really fast, Chris, because I'm going to assume most of this is review for you.  Plus it would take me way longer than an internet article to explain it. If one of these ideas trips you up, Google is a wonderful place with magical grammar lessons around every corner–some whether you want them or not.

The first thing to understanding passive voice is to know the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs.  Some verbs need only a subject (or an agent).  They only need to be done by something.  (The sun rose.  I sit.  Jeff plays.)  These are called intransitive verbs.  However, other verbs need an object as well.  They not only require someone doing something, but they need to be done TO something as well.  (I hit a wall.  Jeff enjoys chess.  The sun heats the Earth.)  These verbs REQUIRE  an object in order to make sense.  If I walked up to you and said "I hit..." or "Jeff enjoys..." you would blink at me and wait for the end of the sentence.

And just really quickly let me say that many verbs are both transitive and intransitive.  ("I eat," or "I eat brains," are both acceptable.)

Well, Mr. Grammar man....
Your first mistake was revealing to us that you had brains.
Tasty, tasty brains.
Your second mistake was using those brains to explain passive
voice instead of zombie-proofing your home.
The next thing to understand is that the subject is generally a positional concept--it is just sentence geography.  A subject comes before the verb.  This is why passive voice ends up being so confusing. English sentences always always always have a subject (except if they are commands where it is implied).  We even use something called "filler subjects" for sentences where there really is no subject.  (There are four lights.  It is raining.)  They don't mean anything, but they are required nonetheless.  That's why beyond high school grammar, linguistics names the person or thing taking the action of the verb the "agent."

With me so far, Chris?

Passive voice means the original subject (or agent) has been taken out of the sentence.  It's a quirk of English, and many languages can't do it.  But since every sentence has to have a subject, the object then comes around into the subject position.  (So "Zombies eat brains," becomes "Brains are eaten.") See how "brains" is dressed up and pretending to be the subject. That's what the passive voice is. You can reinsert the original subject (agent) by adding what's called a "by phrase."  ("Brains are eaten....by zombies.") But you don't have to have a by-phrase.  You can just leave the original subject (or agent) out of the sentence altogether.  ("I hit the wall" becomes "The wall was hit.") ("The sun heats the Earth" becomes "The Earth is heated.")

Witches AND zombies.
This shit just got real.
This is why intransitive verbs can't be passive.  They don't have an object to fill the subject position.

Your confusion comes from the fact that making a passive construction requires a "conversion" to put the verb into the passive voice.  Simple present, for example ("I eat brains") looks like a different tense in passive ("Brains are eaten").

"Eaten" is what's known as the past participle.  (Or form 3.  Eat/Ate/Eaten)  "Brains are eaten" is not in a different tense--it's still simple present--but it looks different because now it's passive.  Past perfect ("Zombies had eaten brains.") becomes ("Brains had been eaten by zombies.") There are twelve tenses in English, not just three.  Present, past, and future each have four forms: simple, progressive (or continuous), perfect, and perfect progressive (or perfect continuous).  The perfect forms all use the past participle and the helping verb have (had/has).

Maybe I'll just read Herman Melville instead.

At this point, every other reader but you is already asleep, even WITH zombies, so I'm not going to go into every tense and how to convert it to passive, but I will say it's an honest mistake to get passive confused with perfect.  Passive voice always uses the past participle.  Perfect tenses also always use the past participle.  Throw in some helping verbs (have/had/has) and a lot of the perfect tenses LOOK like they are passive, even though they aren't.

If you read all that and kind of feel like a zombie just ate YOUR brain, just keep using the "by zombies" test whenever you're confused about something being passive voice.  It pretty much always works.  So "Brains were eaten" is a passive construction (try adding "by zombies" to the end and it makes sense), but "We have eaten" is not ("by zombies" wouldn't work).

As an aside, it's also important to note, Chris, that passive voice isn't actually bad.  Notice how without the by-phrase you can't tell who the original subject (or agent) is?  Well, it turns out sometimes that's exactly what you want if you don't know who did the action or don't care who did the action.  Politicians especially love the passive voice when they don't want to tell you that it was them or their party who fucked up. ("Mistakes were made.")  There are actually several reasons to use passive voice that are perfectly fine.  In fact, many would sound wrong if done in active voice.  ("My mother bore me on September 29th....") The main thing is that you don't use passive to sound objective or impartial–that's where writers who don't really get it start getting into trouble.

Mike asks: 

I need you to settle a bet.  Is it "Billy Dan and me" or "Billy, Dan, and I"?  Five dollars hangs in the balance!

My reply:

Unfortunately Mike no money will exchange hands until I have a little bit more information.  Either one of you could be right (or wrong) depending on the rest of the sentence.  But if you want, I will hold onto the five dollars in the meantime and award it to the winner (minus a very nominal handling fee, of course) once this situation is resolved.

The problem is that either phrase could be correct depending on where it shows up in relationship to the verb.  I is a subject pronoun and me is an object pronoun.  (See Chris’s question above if that’s confusing you.)

Three guys with shotguns.  Yeah that'll totally stop us.
Picture by Vyrmyn N.  Found on Google as open to commercial reuse.
So if these guys were the subject, it would be “Billy, Dan, and I grabbed shotguns to fight zombies.”  But if they were the object, it would be “Zombies tried to bite Billy, Dan, and me.”

The easiest way to figure out which one of these is correct is to get rid of Billy and Dan and see what sounds right.  You wouldn’t say “Me go to the store,” unless you were practicing your Ug-the-caveman impersonation.  Thus, you wouldn’t say “Billy, Dan, and me go to the store.”  Similarly, you wouldn’t say “Magic Mountain hired I,” unless you were practicing your Ug-the-gigantic-doof impersonation, so you wouldn’t say, “Magic Mountain hired Billy, Dan, and I.”

So not knowing where Billy, Dan, and our intrepid narrator show up in this sentence in relation to the verb, it is impossible to know which of you is correct.  Let’s call it a tie and you can just send me the five bucks.

Andre asks:

I watched Scent of a Woman last week and the guy at the very fancy prep school kept asking "Whom did you see?"  It sounded really weird to me, but I'm not a native speaker.  My American friend said he didn't think it was right and it sounded really weird to him too.  But a movie like that seems like something they would get right.

My reply:

I swear I've seen that end speech like fifty times. What a complicated misogynist character, and skillful writing that makes such a odious person sympathetic.

Yeah, "Whom did you see?" is technically correct--especially for a prep school twenty years ago. (And doesn't Chris O'Donnell just look like a baby in that movie!)  But I do want to stress the technically part of that.

Who is a subject pronoun (see above with Mike's question).  Whom is an object pronoun.  Most people can use "whom" in the right way in a grammar lesson or if a sentence has a subject-verb-object construction.  (If it's a "Who is stealing from whom?" sentence.)  But the vast majority of situations where whom would (technically) be called for don't look anything like that structure.

The PROBLEM is, in English "whom" is pretty much always, by its very nature, going to be part of a question. And in English we often reorder the sentence construction of certain questions (called WH questions because they start with WH words and can't be answered with yes or no).  In these questions we put the object first.

Example: Think about the sentence "You bought a dress."  I MIGHT ask you "You bought what?" but mostly we don't ask questions that way (unless you had told me what you bought and I didn't hear you or believe you).  Most likely, the way I'm going to ask that question is by reordering the sentence to say "What did you buy?"

The object comes first in these sorts of questions.  This is how we ask WH questions in English.

(It gets even weirder because the subject goes between the helping verb [did] and the main verb [buy], but that wasn't your question, so I don't want to get into it.)

The same thing is true in our example about "Whom did you see?"  The statement order of that question would be: "You saw whom."  See how it's the object?  That means it should be "whom."  Even if you reorder the words to make it into a question.


The problem is the word "whom" at the beginning of a sentence sounds very, very strange to most native ears.

Scent of a Woman was correct in having that guy use that construction because twenty years ago only a ponce with Cambridge style grammar would be teaching a prep school like the one in that movie. These days, it's even more unusual and odd sounding. You're more likely to find someone who's been taught the etiquette of how to properly use a fish fork than to use whom in its traditional manner.

Zombies are a monster on campus up with which I will not put.
(See this is funny because it's got zombies, and he's not ending a sentence with a preposition
even though.....never mind.)

Whom is one of those words that's fading from English. It's in flux. It doesn't sound right because no one uses it correctly  No one uses it correctly because it doesn't sound right. You still get some die hard believers out there who wear tweed jackets and think the rest of us are heathens, but for most of America and Australia and a lot of England, "who" is replacing "whom" as both the subject and the object pronoun. Most schools (mine included) won't mark off points for grammar if someone uses "who" in both the subject and the object position.  I've taught out of textbooks that didn't even bother to get into the distinction.

It's a fascinating data point if you're into linguistics--it raises the question: at what point does a word sounds so wrong to native speakers that everyone is getting it wrong, and can it really said to correct if everyone gets it wrong?  Everybody knows language evolves over time but it's always something that happened "a long time ago" (when nice meant stupid and artificial was a good thing), but the reaction when one is standing in the middle of linguistic drift as it happens right around them is quite different.

Shanaz asks:

Do I use "a history" or "an history."

My response:

It depends on what side of the pond you're writing me from, Shanaz.  The decision to use "a" or "an" as the indefinite article is always, always, always based on the sound of the word that comes next rather than the actual letter that starts it.  It is a completely phonetic rule.  That means if you're speaking British English and you do not pronounce the "h" in "hotel" you would say "an hotel."  If you are speaking American English, you would say "a hotel."  The same is true of history.  An history if you are from somewhere that doesn't pronounce the H.  A history (or A historical event) if you are from a place that does.

"Historical" get even tricker because the accent is on the second syllable ("hisTORical") instead of the first ("His"tory).  So in the word historical, the H is already subtle and in a lot of dialects, you can barely hear it.  In that case you can almost just pick one and know you're in good company, but Americans tend to use "A" and the Brits tend to use "AN," just so you know.

It has to do with how much French cheese one eats, I think.  Brits are really close, so they eat more French cheese.  #onlysortofkidding

Generally, you should use the conventions of whatever you're speaking in your writing.  This rule (along with some spellings like "colour" vs "color" or "generalise" vs "generalize" tend to clue readers in to where an author is from, and can give them insights into context, culture, and such.

Incidentally, the same thing is true in reverse for "herb."  Americans would say "an herb" but Brits would say "a herb."  It's totally based on sound.

It's always a zombie though.

Friday, June 28, 2013

10 Words Writers Need to Learn to Use "Correctly"

Much as a linguist would (not), I don't give two shits, three fucks, or a flip if you technically used a word incorrectly (or in a non-standard way), so long as I know what you meant.  And neither do most people not destined to die alone.

However...the writing world is not filled with "most people."  It is filled with pedants, folks who choose language as their method of feeling superior to others, and the exceptionally well read who have chosen word nerdery as their elitism of choice.

Writers who wants to be taken seriously must be aware of gatekeepers who do care about the "right" way to use words. Someone may represent them (or not) or publish them (or not) based on their "proper" use of words.  Self-publication is no escape, as many will gleefully castigate a writer just for the glory and honor of being seen doing so or even simply for the pedantic bliss.


How it's often used: Unimpressed or unaffected.  (I tried to appear as nonplussed as possible by the fact that Jeffery turned into a werewolf over tea and scones, but beneath the table I was wetting myself.)

What a writer should know: Nonplussed traditionally means confused.  (I was nonplussed at the funeral because I was still wondering how the hell someone could die from asparagus pudding.) Someone who is bewildered or overwhelmed by information.  They are at a loss.  The facial expressions of someone who is completely overwhelmed and confused can seem almost neutral compared to a situation's emotional urgency.


How it's often used: Useless or unable to perform.  (The information from the security company about the ground floor security mechanisms was redundant since we would be coming in from the roof.) 

What a writer should know:  Redundant has to do with a surplus of something that is not needed; usually a repetition.  (The information from the security company about the ground floor security mechanisms was redundant since we had already gotten it through surveillance the week before.)  While redundant information or equipment might be useless, not all useless information or equipment is redundant. 


How it's often used: An abundance.  A lot.  (Jefe, would you say I have a plethora of pinatas?)

What a writer should know: Plethora classically goes beyond an abundance.  It means a large excess.  Way way more than is needed.  Too much/many. (The plethora of pizza for the party ended up going home with Chris who didn't know how he was going to finish it all.)


How it's often used: Reluctant.  Unwilling.  (Billy was extremely reticent when the instructor asked him to put his answer on the board.)

What a writer should know:  Traditionally reticent only has to do with being unwilling to speak.  Very quiet people are reticent, but they may not have any trouble writing on a board and aren't necessarily shy.  (Billy was reticent about reading his answer to the class because he hated his own voice.)


How it's often used:  As a "highbrow" way of saying amused.  (The crowd was filled with bemused faces at the young child's tap dancing prowess.)

What a writer should know: Bemused's more standard definition is to be confused, befuddled, or lost in thought.  Bemused faces wouldn't know what the heck they were looking at.  (The crowd was filled with bemused faces at the young child's rendition of Sweeny Todd's God That's Good.)


How it's often used:  The really, really ultimate.  Extra ultimate with ultimate sauce. (It was my penultimate achievement to have a foursome with three other women who were all way into me and each other.)

What a writer should know: The confusion here starts with "ultimate."  Ultimate is usually used to mean "best."  This definition is actually so widespread that it probably won't get you into trouble and is generally considered acceptable even among the pedantic, but back in the day, "ultimate" really only meant the last in a series.  It's more modern usage as fundamental or greatest is a later development.  PENULTIMATE in standard usage actually means the second to last.  (All the surprises happened in the penultimate chapter.  The final chapter was just a denouement.)


How it's often used:  Any sort of coincidence that is amusing.  (Isn't it ironic that it is raining on your wedding day?)

What a writer should know: Irony doesn't refer to any unfortunate circumstance.  However, typically this rebuke about the misuse of "irony" comes with a definition like "when the outcome is the opposite of expected."  (It is ironic that Alanis Morissette's song irony contains few examples of actual irony.)  But a writer should be aware of the meaning of the word beyond just the meaning that sticks it to pop artists.  Tragic irony, cosmic irony, dramatic irony, situational irony, and verbal irony are all different things, and you're going to look JUST. AS. FOOLISH. if you go around saying there are absolutely no examples of irony in Alanis Morissette's song.  In fact, the verse about the guy in the plane is TOTALLY an example of irony, not just of situational irony because he was afraid of planes and died on his first flight, but also verbal irony when he said "Well isn't that nice."


How it's often used:  Not interested.  Lacking interest.  Uninterested.  (I was disinterested in the sex life of old people.)

What a writer should know: Traditionally disinterested actually means having no opinion on a matter.  You could find a debate extremely interesting but if you don't lean toward one side or another, you would be disinterested.  (I was disinterested in the outcome of the debate on nanotechnology even though the entire subject is fascinating to me.)


How it's often used:  Utterly destroyed.  Wiped out.  (The relatively low crime of Oakland was decimated by the arrival of crack cocaine in the eighties.)  

What a writer should know: This one didn't used to be a big deal and its "misuse" is extremely common--even, arguably, more well known than its proper use.  It may even bring into question what the hell it means to be "right" about a prescriptive foible when it hinders communication with most people.  But in the last decade or so, it has really come into vogue as a chic way to be prescriptive.  All the cool pedants know the "real" meaning of decimate (and correct everyone else about it like insufferable shitheads).  

Decimate is a word from Roman legions which referred to the practice of killing every tenth soldier (usually as punishment for losing a battle--and you thought your boss was annoying).  Deci=ten.  So decimate traditionally means only to reduce by 1/10 and not to totally destroy.  (After the crushing defeat at Rhone River, Caesar ordered the general in charge be killed and the men to be decimated.)  Good luck finding the instance when it is actually appropriate to use this word "properly."  Hail Caesar.   

10-Literally (this is literally the one to be the most aware of)

How it's often used:  As an intensifier like "really."   (He was literally as big as a house.)

What a writer should know: Literally traditionally means an actual, literal truth.  There is no exaggeration, hyperbole,  metaphor, personification, or any other use of language but objective and absolutely denotative.   The words described by "literally" should have no figurative meaning whatsoever.  

Misuse of literally is one of the single biggest no-no's you can make right now.  It has become the pet peeve that everyone loves to hate.  There are t-shirts, coffee cups, and thousands of web pages and youtube videos dedicated to hating the misuses of this word, as well as mocking and deriding those who get it wrong, impugning everything from their breeding to their intelligence to their eduction, and even their morality based on this single misstep.

(Using "literally" before hyperbole is literally one of the worst mistakes you can make as a writer in today's world.)

Walk out into the world, and people use words the way they've heard them used.  That's what language is. That's how it works.  That's how our brains evolved to communicate using sounds and symbols.  Telling people they are "wrong" about language is at best as futile (and often as unwelcome) as telling them they are "just wrong" about their preference of food or clothing style. At best it is sort of elitist and declaring oneself the arbiter of when natural linguistic drift counts and doesn't.

At worst it's kind of classist and (if they're using a dialect) probably racist.

So if you want to be like my step-father and delight in correcting people's grammar and vocabulary, just know that will probably end up with his reputation for being insufferably arrogant, and you are likely to die a death of tweed-filled loneliness.

The good news is that these days you probably don't have to worry about the difference between "making" money instead of "earning" it or how dreadfully uncouth it is to have your protagonist "climb down" something. Using "refute" instead of "rebut" doesn't typically lead to the eye-rolling conclusion that one doesn't know how to write the way a misplaced "decimate" might. 

But it is the gatekeepers and avid readers a writer must most often impress. They are the serial commenters and the linguistic well actualista (many of whom will no doubt swarm the comments on this very post to inform people that they DO, in fact, deserve to be the arbiter of when natural linguistic drift counts and doesn't).  They are judging you--sometimes quietly, often vociferously on your usage of a few key words that they deem to be bellwethers of proper language and their usage to be the "correct" form.  And if you could work around them, I'd tell you to, but life is going to be SO much easier if you just figure out what they're on about. 

Besides, it's not like they're wrong.  They just need to get fucking laid or something.  GOD!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Still Wibbly Wobbly

Still on crazy summer school schedule.  You will still basically get one "meaty" post, one mailbox, and a few "other" posts each week, but the times they get posted is going to continue to be screwy while I deal with summer school.

Most of this is due to lesson plans.  They actually take a considerable chunk of thought and time, and I usually end up having to leave early to run to Fed Ex Offices to make copies before class.

But, once I have the lesson plans done, I don't need to write them again, so for the second session (the last three weeks) I should be less overwhelmed and able to write more regularly since much of the prep work will already be done.  I can even use DVC's central services to print up copies once I know with sufficiently advanced timing what I need copies OF.

So the wibbly wobbly has about two more weeks, and then things should stabilize.  But as I said, you should still be getting the same AMOUNT of posting--it's just sort of clumped toward the weekends.  I'm also assured that Cedric has been kicking some serious asses, and that you can look forward to the end of the delinquency phase of our guest bloggers little impromptu vacations.

He has, in his own words, gone "eight armed ninja all over their asses," and even Leela Bruce saw the wisdom in getting back to work.  So that should be fun!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Welcome The Patron Muses

[We're still in wibbly wobbly updatey watey time here, so my "main" article will probably show up later in the week.  In the meantime it seems overdue to add my Patron/Muses, of whom I've spoken before, to the Cast and Crew.  Plus one of the Patron/Muses is celebrating Uterine Liberation Day and since emancipation from the Wombarian oppressors only happens once in a lifetime, it is right and proper to do something nice each time the Earth reaches roughly the same point in its perennial solar revolution. So this (sans pictures and some of the text related to their explanation) is what will be going into the cast and crew.]

How about we frolic, and YOU get your ass to work?

Patron Muses

VERY NSFW, but also very, very funny.
Though Cathamel retains the Primary Muse status, and is the fiercest ass kicker muse there has ever been (as you can see from this image of her before I came into her care, and she took the form of a dragon), there are a few readers of writing about writing who have been acting as patron/muses.

I can try to sing their praises, but it will never quite be enough.  Whether they show up to social events with their entire family dressed in Writing About Writing t-shirts, donate a non-trivial amount month after month, drop a donation on me that is so huge my mouth literally goes dry, or simply help my social media proliferation by liking and sharing just about every damn thing I put up on my Facebook page, they are who I think of when the writing gets hard.  They are the ones I realize I can't let down even when I sort of feel like letting down myself might be okay.  They are the ones who keep me going.

Right now there are four of them (but there's always room for one more).  Laura, Gillian, Alisha, and Adem.  I salute you.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Mailbox: Revision Land!

What does my revision process look like?

[Remember, keep sending in your questions to chris.brecheen@gmail.com with the subject line "W.A.W. Mailbox" and I will answer them each Friday.  I will use your first name ONLY unless you tell me explicitly that you'd like me to use your full name or you would prefer to remain anonymous.  My comment policy also may mean one of your comments ends up in the mailbox.  I'm happy to tell you about my process as long as I get to put in a few public service announcements about the topic in general along with it.]  

Amy Asks:

What does a day in the life of you look like in Revision Land? That is, how do you approach it (versus how you want to approach if that's applicable) in terms of mood/muse? Do you enjoy making enormous changes to the way the story unfolds, such as altering the timeline (perhaps switching from linear to flashbacks or whatever), completely changing character motivations, etc.? I ask this latter question because it's my favorite part of revision. It's like using powerful construction equipment to move enormous beams and other building materials. What I have at the end of the day is so different from what I had at the beginning of the day that I feel like my brain has gone on an all-day weight training binge.

My reply:

I love any chance to give people a tour of Revision Land.  It's a magical world where the unicorns prance about in happy joy.  Well, all the unicorns except Charlie The Too-Good-To-Revise Unicorn.

"Charlie it's time to go to Revision Land, Charlieeeeee."

"Yeah, Charlie.  Revision Land, Charlie!  Yay!"

"Yay Charlie!  It's an adventure Charlie.  An adventure to Revision Land, Charlie!"

"Come with us to revision land, Charlie!"

"I don't really want to go to Revision Land.  I don't like Revision Land."

"Charlie, you have to go to Revision Land.  Everyone has to go to Revision Land, Charlie."

"Yeah Charlie, Revision Land is awesome.  It's an adventure, Charlie.  An adventure to Revision Land, Charlie.  How can we have good writing if we don't have an adventure to Revision Land Charlie."

"I don't really think Revision Land is that important.  I think about my writing a lot before I write it, so I don't need to go to Revision Land."

"Shun the non-believer, Charlie."



If you don't get this reference, click this link.
I can't say for sure you won't feel like you just lost five minutes of your life,
but at least people might believe you when you tell them you don't live in a cave
...a cave with no wifi

Now before I give Amy a tour of revision land, I want to make sure that something is perfectly clear to our readers at home.  So imagine that I am turning away from Amy sitting in the seat next to me here in the studio, and looking directly into the camera...

I want everyone to pay attention to exactly what Amy asked me.  She didn't ask me if I revised.  She asked me how I revised.  It didn't even cross her mind that I wouldn't.  This is because Amy (who is a friend of mine) is a professional writer who makes money word smithing--sometimes even writing fiction.  And Amy knows revision is a vital part of the writing process.  Amy knows that it is as likely for a writer to be published or well-regarded without revision as it is for a band to attempt to sight read their songs at a concert or for a theater troupe to do no rehearsing before a show or for a visual artist to get rich off of concept sketches hung in frames at a gallery.

Art is about refinement and perfection.  A number of writers talk about how shitty first drafts can be.  Hemingway's first drafts, which have only recently shown up among his effects, were downright embarrassing.  One of the best modern essays on revision is called "The Eleventh Draft" and it talks about how that is the point (at the 11th draft) that you really start to see the quality artistic stuff peaking through.

I need a little tiny hipster symbol for "This is pretentious as shit."

Simply put, if you want to be a writer for anyone but yourself, you must revise extensively.

Now there are obviously books on my bookshelf, some of which I even love, that haven't been through eleven drafts (a few seem like may not have even seen a third or fourth), but it kind of shows. Even writers you might classically think of as plot based storytellers with hastily written prose (like Stephen King, Dan Brown, or JK Rowling) admit to doing at least three complete drafts of their books before entering the fine-tuning stage, so even "commercial" work has had a fair bit of revision.
"Refinement and perfection are a part of the artistic process and writing is no different." 
So before I tell Amy about Revision Land, let me just make sure that it's clear that this is how I navigate Revision Land.  Every writer has a different process, and yours doesn't have to look like anyone else's.  Do whatever works for you.  I have met several writers (some with names an avid reader might even recognize) who do not look back when they are writing something until the very end.  Then they go all the way back through and make major changes.  I've met others who revise just a few pages behind where they are writing and are almost rigorous about "keeping up with themselves."  Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Kurt Vonnegut who would rewrite a page on his typewriter dozens--sometimes hundreds--of times until the page he added to the stack was perfect, but once he had that perfect page, he was done.

Okay, back to revision land.

No.  Not that kind of tweaker either.
I'm a tweaker.  Not crystal meth, mind you, but a constant fiddler.  When I'm writing something, I'm constantly going back and fine tuning what came before it.  If I decide to add an aspect to a character, I go back through and find places where I can bring that aspect out.

In fact, most of my writing sessions on my fiction begin with some revision of what has come before to kind of jump start the process and if I've ever let a story rest for too long and the plot feels fallow and the characters stale, one of the best ways to get myself back into its groove is to go back to the beginning and read through what I've written so far with an eye on revision.  Just getting involved in some brush up tends to remind me where my head was and get me back in the game.

I also notice that revision is, for me, a much more intellectual activity while the major drafting (first and second drafts) tend to be the deeply emotional parts of writing.  I notice that for those who tend to make huge changes in revision, the revising is often a much more emotional task.  For me, I can write my early drafts at any time of day, but I need a fresh head and a good night's sleep to tackle revision.  But once my head is clear, I can sit and revise for hours and hours without even needing a break, basically until my fingers or eyes give out, but when I'm writing I have about four good hours in me (and maybe two more if I'm really on a tear) before I feel too emotionally drained to continue--like I've been arguing with a loved one all night or something--cathartic, but exhausting.

That's probably why my really successful marathon writing sessions involve several hours of revision and then several hours of writing afterward.

To answer your last question first, usually I am terrified by the big changes.  That's actually the part I hate the most about revision.  When I feel like something has to change and be completely rewritten, I kind of look at it like an oncoming train...filled with napalm.  I hang my head and sort of feel about it the way you might if your teenager just drove a car through your front door. You can't sue your own kid and they're never going to pay for it out of their allowance. You pretty much have to resign yourself to the horror. Obviously that part of revision has to be done--and I respect the writing process to know that I can't do whatever metaphorical equivalent there is of hanging plastic sheets over the car-shaped hole in the wall and pretending it's not a problem.  Those are my "darlings" and I need to "kill" them, but  I really hate having to pull out all the parts and put them back together again.

So I tend to love the first draft and the 3+ draft and kind of hate the 2nd draft part.

My revision process after I have a rough draft on the page goes a little bit like this:

1- Clean up the glaring bullshit for the second draft.

There's always something that's just bullshit about my stories in a first draft.  Just absolute total fucking steaming pile of bullshit.  I knew it wasn't working when you I was writing it, but I powered through because "shitty first drafts" and "just write" echoed in my head and drove me forward.  When I wrote Penumbra, my first draft had "Norma" calling the main character "cracker" every other word because that was part of the experience that was based on something that had really happened to me. But it didn't fit to reinforce that reverse racism narrative with story's broader themes, so that was one of the first bits to go.  In Falling From Orbit, Millie's father was far too supportive in the original version--he needed to have more of a bite to him so I tweaked him to more closely represent those who assume so called "non-traditional relationships" are pretty much just about sex.  I first wrote The Look as a play.

This is the time to filter through the really big mistakes.  Characters who don't belong.  Multiple scenes doing the same thing story-wise.  Gaping continuity holes.  That sort of thing gets fixed here. This is as close to heavy lifting as I willingly get when I am revising, especially if I can see that major parts of the story (like whole characters or entire motivations) are going to need revision.  I do it because that's what the orgasmic haze of a finished artistic creation demands, but this is my least favorite part of the entire writing process.

[Let me turn away from Amy once more  and back to the camera to give the reading audience one more bit of advice--one solid "rule" about revision amidst all this touchy feeling "whatever works for you" crap:

The computer can make you too vested in what you have on the page.  The ability to "tweak" without changing is too refined.  Once upon a time we had to rewrite the whole manuscript no matter what because typewriters, so making a major change wasn't as scary.  One of the reasons I'm so bad about second draft is that I cut my teeth writing on a word processor (way back on my Macintosh 512k) and you can change a lot without actually having to rewrite a manuscript.  Computers can make writers afraid to make big changes, but those big changes HAVE to happen.

They're like the difference between Game of Thrones and you telling us about your Dungeons and Dragons game last week.

This is why almost every modern writer (and I'm included) says that you should print out at least your first draft and completely retype the whole thing into a new file.  If you're rewriting the damned thing anyway, you will be more likely to accept big changes that your story really needs to be good.

And back to Amy...]

2- Take a break.  

Now is the time to put my story in a drawer for a while. The longer the project, the longer it gets drawered. Ideally I want it in there long enough that I forget what I meant and can see it more objectively, but not so long that when I come back to it I have one of those, "Everything I wrote back in those ignorant days of ignorance was absolute crap!" reaction to it.

3- Tease out what I've found

Now I read my story, and as a careful reader, I'm going to find things I didn't even notice were there when I wrote it. This is a very, very normal part of the process, and virtually every writer talks about it. Almost every discussion we had with published authors in the Creative Writing programmed involved the phrase "Oh, I never noticed that" from the author, at least once, in reference to their own work. (And this was stuff undergrads caught after only one reading--like multiple references to angelic wings or a pervasiveness of the use of streamers of light.) A creative brain is just ROILING under the surface of careful work. It's one of the reasons you really can't just submit first drafts if you want your writing to be at all good. So much good stuff is just out of reach in that first draft. This process is more like careful excavation.

This is possibly the most difficult part of revision for me (even though I enjoy it) because I find that if I am in a very different mood I will see very different things hiding beneath the surface. So it can be both helpful and possibly confusing to approach a work multiple times from multiple frames of mind. I just have to be careful not to let a mood that is antithetical to the work affect me too much or I will change the tone of the piece. I often have difficulty intellectually deciding whether or not to change language, and I often end up changing things back and forth and back and forth during this part.

4- Consider the work artistically

This part will sound like so much bullshit to most, but this is the moment where I actually try to run through a checklist of craft elements and make sure that I've not simply neglected one or another.  I basically want to make sure that every decision in the work is conscious--even if the decision is to leave it out.  Though it is a bit of an artifice to consider the elements separately rather than as part of a tapestry, the list allows me to consider each of the main elements and whether they are working with the elements I discovered in the second draft.

5- Get some readers

Now comes the part I can't do alone. I need people to tell me what is working and what isn't.  I need to find out if something I tried to be subtle about is ham handed or if something I thought I was overdoing was actually invisible.  I can start with a few people I trust including the few folks I consider "my audience" (as in "write for your audience"). But eventually I'm going to need to get readers who might not want to bang me.

The trick (for me) with feedback is knowing that the more it stings, the more they're probably right. A writer who's never had feedback before or never been through workshopping might not know how to filter bad feedback from good feedback (which is one of the reasons to get some feedback flinging oneself into the shark infested waters of critical review), but I have a pretty good feedback-dar for what is worth listening to. Shitty feedback is easy to blow off. It's the stuff that nails me right in the feels that I know is dead on.

Most of my posted fiction is technically still in "beta readers" phase. That is to say that feedback from W.A.W.'s readers would be incorporated (either immediately if it were a small change or into a future version if I felt that the change required a fundamentally new draft).

6- Begin the process of refinement.  

After this point, the story is probably mostly what the story is going to be.  Changes beyond here usually have to do with specific word choices and/or proof reading.  Little things.  It's a process of refinement and feedback.  You might know a plot or a main theme when you're drafting a story, but the more hidden and subtle stuff you don't know so it would be impossible to make choices that reflect them in earlier drafts.  But now you have an idea of those things and even the choice between two synonyms can work for your overall vision.  This is where you get down and basically think about just about every word and whether that is really the right word.

And because I'm not an MFA instructor or an editor of a "proper" literary magazine, I will probably abandon this process sooner than most who concern themselves greatly with "artistic integrity" might.  I will settle for done instead of perfect and Janusprof will shake his head and sigh a deep sigh of sighfullness.

Of course, like any codified artistic process, these steps are rarely separate and distinct, but rather tend to bleed together into a gloosh of activity.  I may be cleaning up bullshit on one part of a story while I feel like another is basically in its final stages of refinement.  Art is never really as clean as artists make it sound.  And they make it sound pretty fucking messy.

Usually the aggregate changes from all those little tweaks does the trick to get me to something I'm happy with.  Like most art, writing starts out in broad brushstrokes and gets more and more detail oriented, so it's rare to discover that an entire character or plot needs to be removed after the first couple of drafts.  Usually that second major rewrite takes care of the big shit like that, and I know I'm going to hate taking an axe to my darlings, but it must be done.  However, every once in a while I do discover, even late in the game, that I'm simply going to have to make some major change, and that is generally when I bust out the fifth of Jack Daniels, put on my French Maid outfit, close my eyes and think of England how much better it's going to be when I'm done.

Friday, June 21, 2013

No poll....

I've changed my mind about many of the rest of the polls I had planned on putting up.  At least for now.   Only 20 or so people were voting, and my remaining questions kind of had to do with monetizing longer works and how (and how often) it was appropriate to remind people of ways they could help Writing About Writing become a viable blog with higher quality content, more fiction, and a oh-so-motherfucking-badly-needed copy editor.

I kind of need more data to deal with for questions like that.

It may be that what I need to do is find a new program that can put a poll up in the text of an entry.  The Polldaddy program I'm working with is able to do such a thing only in Wordpress but not Blogger.  The widget all the way down and on the left seem to be hard to deal with, as I still get regular readers asking where the poll actually is.

So, what I'll probably do is just wait until July, and kick back up the book polls (July will be the best stand alone fantasy novel) while I cast about for a better program for making polls.  And maybe we can try these questions when I have a few more regulars and a better interface.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Fortune Cookie Wisdom for Writers IV

It is easier to do most things than it is to just sit down and write.  That's why you see so many people planning, outlining, thinking about characters, considering, and preparing to write and calling it writing.  That's why you see a lot fewer people actually writing. It's why unpublished writers are always going on about how important these activities are, but the more successful a writer is, the more they may or may not like these things but are very clear how important it is to just write.

It's pretty easy to say something published is crap. (And some are.) It's pretty easy to discount all the work that went into it. It's pretty easy to imagine we could have done it. But we didn't.

If you can show me a single language where prescriptivism has prevented linguistic drift or mitigated the need for footnotes in texts that are hundreds of years old, I will gladly use a time machine to go tell Saussure he was full of crap.

Trying to "make it" as a writer (or really as any kind of artist) requires a certain level of dogged faith in oneself.  Not the blind hubris that you are an unsung genius, or the delusions of grandeur that prevent you from acknowledging criticism or noticing that no one likes your work, but simply the belief that you have something worth sharing and some people are going to enjoy it if you can just find them and they can just find you.

Life is too short and success is too uncertain to worry about trying to write what is going to sell. Write what you're dying to write.

The prose of writers who "don't like to read" is extremely self-indulgent.  It reads a little bit like walking into a social group that uses a lot of inside jokes or one with echo chambers that don't permit contrary opinions.

It's okay if you want to verse yourself in a version of English that has fifty to a hundred years worth of anachronisms in it.  That's kind of cool actually.  But if you insist everyone else play by your rules and act like a real asshole if they don't, your fortune will be to die alone.

The only real mistake you can make is to quit.

If you're ever unconvinced that linguistic prescriptivists are similar to religious purists, pay attention to just how long it takes them to call someone doing something they think is wrong a "heathen."

Before a writer who wants to be a "successful writer" (be it famous, rich, or just paying the bills with writing) embraces a rationale for not writing daily consider this: as difficult as it can be to become a successful writer who writes every day, how much more difficult must it be to become a successful writer who doesn't?

Most writers block is performance anxiety.  When you truly accept that the first draft is crap, you get over writer's block pretty quickly.

High school grammar is....well it's like a lot of things you learn in high school.  It's basic.  It's very fundamental.  It's an important start. It's the VERY basics you need to set the stage for a deeper understanding.  But if you think that's all there is to it or you that you've gotten the whole story, if you can't learn to accept any new information, or even if you just think every high school learned it the same exact way you did, you look pretty foolish.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Warning: Strange Days Ahead

Writing About Writing's Update Schedule Might Become a Wibbly Wobbly ball of Updatey Watey, Posty Wosty for a while.  

So as I mentioned earlier, I'm teaching summer school and that starts this week.  In fact, today I appear to be discovering that writing lesson plans a substitue could work from (if needed) is a little harder than my regular amount of prep.  Plus there was some orientation thing that I needed to go to--which is always a drag for me since my one way commute is usually as long as an orientation. The good news is I only need to do one orientation and one set of lesson plans for all six classes.

Summer school is Tues/Wed/Thurs.  This might play a little havoc with my update schedule, but I should still be able to get the same amount of posts up.  They just might happen at irregular times.  So if Writing About Writing experiences a couple of missing articles over the next six weeks, you're probably just going to get the same content sometime that weekend.

You should count this update.  My longer "Monday-normal" article will probably be up by Wed or Thurs.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Poll Results: More Fiction

Bacon wins again, but at least I got some data.

I want to thank everyone who voted on the poll about whether or not you'd like to see more fiction (or if you wanted the blog to continue as per normal).  Obviously things were too close to say that either option or the other was the runaway favorite, but that, in and of itself, tells me something.  Even the low poll turn out and more attention to goofball answers tells me that a lot of people don't have a horse in this race.  

And you all were quite lovely for not picking the options that would make me cry.
Though I figured it would go one way or another, the fact that it didn't tells me is that I was probably right to approach my fiction the way I had intended to originally--even after I found that The Hall of Rectitude was expecting a baby and time might be at a premium.  There might be a bit more fiction at the expense of a few regular articles, but for the most part, I'm going to work to keep the posting schedule pretty consistent unless I'm working directly on something.  

And who knows...while it's probably unrealistic to expect Writing About Writing to become financially viable in the next year, I see some improvement almost each month, so there may yet be an opportunity to drop some of my other job commitments and give that time to writing.  With househusbandry, that may involve getting a little bit of help for a couple of hours during the day, but it amounts to the same thing--the more I can make here, the more this can be my job.

Tangentially--I think I'm probably going to leave even the "short" polls up a little longer after this one.  Encouraging people to vote often means going on social media to ask for votes.  Done three or four times over the course of a month and once right before I close the poll, it can be... noticeable to those who aren't that interested in my blog, but on a timetable of only a week, it seems like that's all I'm posting over and over again.  

It was getting obnoxious even to me.  

My next poll going up (probably Tuesday or Wednesday since I really am going to try to take tomorrow off) has to do with longer works of fiction and how you might like to see them handled--specifically with regards to what you might feel more inclined to support financially.  So let that tease your brain a bit.